All the small things

What makes a person successful? Most would argue talent and hard work. Sounds right, right? If you have the skills, and you work hard at applying those skills, you will likely succeed. That sounds good in theory, but I never actually believed hard work and talent led to real success, at least not those two things alone. There had to be other factors that I couldn’t get my fingers on, until I read Malcolm Gladwell’s “Outliers.”

In “Outliers”, Gladwell presents a person or situation that is extraordinary, explains why it is extraordinary in a conventional manner, and then explains the many hidden factors that greatly contribute to its success.

The world of sports is often thought to be a fair system that rewards, of course, the most talented and the hardest working players. That’s just at the surface level however. Let’s take a look at hockey. After research, Gladwell found that a questionable number of professional Canadian hockey players were born in January, February, and March, and that number progressively lessened as you moved further past January. And this is why. Youth hockey leagues in Canada determine league eligibility by birthdays within the same calendar year, meaning that children born on January 1st of 1990 for example play with those children who are born up to December 31st of 1990. Now these are children we are talking about, 7 years old probably when they begin playing hockey. At that age, a few months difference is a big deal in terms of athleticism, because those few months lead to relatively important physical development. And at that age, the older you are, the bigger and faster you probably are as well. So, during tryouts, it wasn’t the younger 7 year-olds born later in December that would get picked more often, but rather the older kids that were born in January, February, and March. Talent was being confused with maturity.

After that, these chosen athletes (who were better at the time) received the better coaching and training, and thus were more prepared at the next level, and were able to make the elite leagues; this trend continues all the way up to the NHL. In any elite group of hockey players examined, 40% of the players were born in the first three months of the calendar year. Gladwell proposes a biblical verse in the Gospel of Matthew to explain this effect: “For unto everyone that hath shall be given, and he shall have abundance. But from him that hath not shall be taken away even that which he hath.” Simply put, the rich get richer, and the poor get poorer.

This process of selecting, streaming, and differentiating occurs in many other sports. While American football and basketball are not quite as bad, American baseball and European soccer are similarly skewed. In baseball for example, the cutoff date for (almost) all nonschool leagues is July 31st. Most MLB players are born in which month? That’s right, August. In 2005, 505 were born in August, compared to 313 born in July. Now while this may not seem drastic to you, it is clear that there is an advantage that is built in to the very foundation of these systems. And this kind of selection process also has an effect on many other systems, including education. Just something to consider.

So, because of some arbitrary cutoff eligibility date, your chances of becoming a professional athlete in a given sport could be weakened before you are even 7 years old. All the small things, which we would never think of, can have a profound effect on our futures.

Jeff Carter, born on the ideal birthday for hockey players- January 1st.

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